Senator John Mc Cain On The Record

The campaign-finance fight, telecom reform, and tobacco

Conservative Republican John McCain of Arizona has been a maverick throughout his two terms in the Senate. But never more so than this fall, when he defied his party's leaders in an uphill quest for campaign-finance reform. The former Navy pilot, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, also went it alone as the only Senate Republican to oppose the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. Now chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain, 61, has strong influence over issues ranging from telecommunications to tobacco. In an Oct. 6 interview with BUSINESS WEEK Correspondent Amy Borrus in his Senate hideaway--and in a follow-up chat on Oct. 8--Senator McCain talked about his legislative goals and his Presidential aspirations for 2000.

Q: Campaign-finance reform appears all but dead. Is it?A: No. The American people want change. There will be more and more scandals and revelations, so it's inevitable that sooner or later, the Congress will have to respond.

Q: Won't the public blame the GOP for torpedoing reform?A: I regret to say that this could harm Republicans in the long run if we don't act.

Q: Has the Telecommunications Act of 1996 fulfilled its promise?A: The act is fundamentally flawed because it is not deregulatory. It is protective of all the interests that are involved in the telecommunications business with the exception of the consumer. That's why we are seeing increasing phone rates, increasing cable rates, consolidations and mergers, and little if any increase in competition. You've got to...decrease the enormous power that has been given to the Federal Communications Commission. I would like to see most of the focus on antitrust and antimonopolistic practices. That means taking away most of the FCC's authority and letting the Justice Dept. intervene where necessary. Otherwise, let 'em [telecommunications companies] compete.

Q: Will we see a new telecommunications bill in '98?A: It depends on public dissatisfaction. It wouldn't surprise me if there were a manifestation of that next year.

Q: Would you oppose WorldCom's takeover of MCI?A: I haven't had a chance to examine it. But whenever you see major consolidation, it is a matter of concern. The deal is another example of the failure of the telecom bill. We made it easier for companies to merge rather than compete with each other.

Q: What should the new commissioners at the FCC tackle first?A: I'd like them to take a whole new look at the Telecommunications Act. I also want them to review the licenses of affiliates of NBC for failure to implement the new rating system [for television programming], see whether they're acting in the public interest. I would like to see continuance of spectrum auctions and a review of the process of transition to HDTV.

Q: Do you approve of the megasettlement with the tobacco industry?A: Congress needs to play a role. The question is, does Congress focus on the most compelling aspect of tobacco--kids smoking--or do we try to deal with a comprehensive settlement? Congress doesn't handle [multifaceted issues] very well. But I am of the inclination to see if we can't come up with an overall solution, and if not, at least address teenage smoking. I don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Q: What would a limited bill include?A: Enhancing the Food & Drug Administration's authority, [curbing] advertising, [earmarking] money for an antismoking crusade, determining the amount of tax on cigarettes that would serve as a deterrent to kids smoking. Things like product liability and immunity...that could be done later, if necessary.

Q: There's great strife among Republicans at a time when President Clinton is embracing much of the GOP agenda. Why can't you take "yes" for an answer?A: It has to do to some degree with the fact that House Republicans were wandering in the wilderness of minority status for 42 years. It is difficult to rule. I understand the disappointment of people who were in the minority for a long time [who want] everything to work out exactly. The cold war was a unifying factor for us, and now, that is gone. But I'm very optimistic about the future of the Republican Party. Look, at least we're fighting over ideas. The Democrats have no position on anything.

Q: One of those big ideas now is an overhaul of the tax code. Where do you come out on that?A: Ideally, I would like to see two tax brackets with two deductions--for charitable donations and interest on home mortgages. But I would be satisfied with any tax system that lets me fill out my tax return on a postcard.

Q: Will we soon resolve the stalemate over curbs on software encryption?A: I don't think we're at a resolution, but I believe early next year we can reach one. It's too important not to.

Q: Are we going to see a compromise on product-liability reform this year?A: I'm urging the majority leader to take up the issue early next year, whether we have an agreement or not. What the White House is proposing now is simply too weak.

Q: What would you have to offer as a Presidential candidate in 2000?A: A record of advocacy for reform, a record of advocacy for a strong defense and free trade, rejection of isolationism and protectionism, and [a person] who makes decisions on the basis of the merits as I see them as opposed to the influence of party politics.

Q: Being a senator hasn't been a great launching pad for the Presidency. Is that a factor as you weigh whether to seek the GOP nomination?A: People who shape their actions and policies around aspirations for higher office usually end up destroying themselves. Two things would have to happen if I would have any chance: One, I continue to compile a record of legislative achievements. The second is that the American people--and the Republican Party first--would have to want someone who is rather different from the average politician, more independent and more reform-minded. I have no indication that would be the case.